Under the Tree

Under the Tree
We Always Play Videogames

Leigh Alexander | 4 Dec 2007 12:05
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The way our family celebrated changed forever when our Grammy died. I was about 12 at the time; my cousin was 9, and my sister was 6. Our first holiday without her felt hardly a holiday at all; it was quiet, and my aunts can't cook. The adults decided we'd move the celebration to my cousin's large, fancy house. His mother made a "kids' table" for us, and I, a seventh-grader, was affronted. We sat, isolated, around the little table in the kitchen, listening to the somber conversation and the music my uncle had put on his elaborate stereo system. Everything had changed, and I think the three of us were rather too young to articulate the pain.

My Grammy was gone; we'd gotten too old to play on the floor, and with the grief still fresh for all of us, there was no place in the air for laughter. Nobody seemed to have remembered to get the Hanukkah cookies, and gifts were soberly sparse this year, too - it just didn't seem respectful to be indulgent. As a reminder that I was, as everyone said, becoming a young lady, I got a pair of earrings, a few responsible, practical things. There wasn't really much to be excited about.

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Except my cousin's brand-new, jaw-dropping, cutting-edge Dreamcast. That was something.

He had Pandemonium and Soul Calibur. And we were a little bit lonely, but as we played, it became easier to remember being happy. Something in our family had changed forever, but as Siegfried decked Sophitia and we finally laughed, secreted away like always behind the closed door of my cousin's room, the three of us - me in my awkward adolescence, my cousin getting serious as he grew older, my sister too old now to have a stuffed animal with her - all realized that we had one thing we could keep consistent: We were a trio, it was Hanukkah, and we were playing games.

We kept the tradition even after I moved out of state to live on my own, years later. My cousin's parents divorced, and he had a new stepmother. We had a new cousin; my mom's sister had a baby girl. I'd return to my parents' house for the holidays, where my own sister had grown taller than I and too cool to hang around much. One year, the three of us, teenagers, sat together smoking cigarettes on the porch and remembering our grandmother. Right before the tears came, though, I found out my cousin had gotten an Xbox, and we had a right proper console war. That Hanukkah, he told me he doubted the PS2 could sustain - it had, like, no games.

It became a functional ritual, even once the three of us were old enough that the holiday gathering was somewhat a matter of obligation. After all, I'd become reluctant to leave my newfound freedom in New York every year, where I, now cynically non-religious, had started setting up a festive annual Christmas tree. My cousin had begun college, studying business, and my sister would rather spend time with her friends; our Hanukkah celebration seemed to have gotten smaller, less familiar with every year since Grammy's passing. My sister had fallen out of interest in games - except those times she'd dust off the Genesis and play Sonic & Knuckles for old time's sake, over and over. Hanukkah was now the only time my sister and I saw our cousin, our former partner-in-crime, and the little boy in our memory had mysteriously become an adult, somehow. With a dearth of things in common, we still had games to discuss.

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